By Hannah Ryon, TTS22/23
A cellphone buzzes and shrieks out the latest pop song. The click of the computer keys sticking in their spaces echoes in my mind as the woman continues to jam them in frustration. Her child wails, tugging at the edge of her shirt, “I wanna play momma!” She brushes him off, the glow of the screen reflecting in her eyes. Outside of the Internet cafe a car squeals down the icy Michigan road, followed by a chorus of honking and shouting. The man next to me jumps at the noise, spilling his coffee on the laptop. As the light on the screen flickers out he curses furiously under his breath. Ready to escape the chaos?
It took four months unplugged in southern Africa for me to understand how easily this environment can be avoided. With 15 other high school girls and four teachers, I traveled throughout South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and Botswana in a giant blue overland truck. During the semester, we left our computers and cell phones at home and learned how to overcome our dependency on technology.
A problem many of my peers face today is the inability to communicate face-to-face and solve conflict. With social networking it has become easy to hide behind the anonymity of an online profile. Disappearance of this barrier provided us the opportunity to create a functional dynamic within our group and communicate with people outside of our group. It was often difficult to overcome the separation caused by language and cultural differences. When we visited the San tribe of Namibia, also known as the Bushmen, we hoped to learn about a culture long forgotten. However, it became a challenge when only one woman in the village spoke English. I learned to ask them questions using hand gestures and facial expressions and they responded the same way. Through this interaction I peered into San history and modern-day culture.
In addition to developing a new style of communication, we worked to form relationships with the people we encountered. When our group entered a community there was less of a divide created by wealth. On a trip to Kliptown, Soweto we would have solidified our status as outsiders if we had brought flashy technology. Kliptown is a township in South Africa experiencing problems with poverty, drugs, violence and alcohol. Instead of caring about our material belongings, we were able to focus our attention on making impactful relationships. The most powerful of my interactions was with a man named Bob. He spoke to us about the struggles of living in poverty and his efforts to transform the mindset of the citizens of Kliptown. The children he mentored in the township reflected this positive outlook. These relationships provide for an entirely new education.
“I am getting to know the communities here better because I do research through the people around me instead of using a computer,” my classmate Maeve said, acknowledging how the people taught us more about Africa then we could ever discover online.
Escaping the onscreen world also pushed us to recognize the phenomenons of reality through an exposure to nature. The day we hiked Table Mountain there were no beeps or rings, only the sound of our synchronized steps scattering the rocks as we trudged up the trail. We quickly began to doubt ourselves as the path grew steeper, questioning if we could make it to the peak. By the time we reached the final step sweat fell from our faces and our legs wobbled unsurely, but the feeling of triumph was incomparable. The worries of texting and Facebook became lost thoughts, as we were consumed by our surroundings.
“I don’t feel the need to Instagram every single beautiful landscape we come across; I get to fully experience Africa the way I was meant to,” Peri remarked.
Standing on the edge of the rocky cliff I recognized the achievement as a metaphor for overcoming our self-doubt. This stemmed from our dependency on technology and the previous ability to hide behind the online barrier. I gently nudged a stone toward the edge and watched it topple down the side of the mountain and into the distant blue water painted with white crests. As the sun crept out behind the clouds I tilted my face up, accepting its warmth on my wind-burned cheeks. For the first time I was experiencing true serenity.